Bill a boost to Berlusconi

Legislation to remove media ownership caps

ROME — Italy’s Senate Tuesday approved a media bill that paves the way for billionaire Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to expand his media empire, despite charges of a conflict of interest.

The bill will remove media ownership caps allowing Mediaset, controlled by Berlusconi’s family, to keep all three of its terrestrial webs and to spread its interests in television and publishing into radio and print.

Under current law, commercial broadcasters are allowed to operate two channels — Mediaset was prepping to spin off its least-watched net, Rete 4.

Opposition groups protested outside with banners demanding media freedom during the vote, which must be approved by the lower house Chamber of Deputies.

During an angry debate, opposition senators derided the bill as the clearest sign yet of a conflict between Berlusconi’s political power and his multibillion-dollar media interests.

But Berlusconi’s supporters denied the bill favored the prime minister or his family empire, arguing it would usher in a more liberal media market.

“This increases the breadth and plurality of information,” said Domenico Nania, Senate leader of the National Alliance, a member of Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition. “It regulates the move to digital terrestrial service, protects minor players and allows smaller competitors to grow.”

Lucia Annunziata, left-leaning chairman of pubcaster RAI, told a board meeting she would quit if the bill, which would shorten her mandate, becomes law.

In June, parliament passed legislation giving Berlusconi immunity from prosecution just as his trial on charges of bribing judges was concluding. Berlusconi denied the charges.

The media bill, which has bolstered shares in Mediaset in recent weeks on expectations it will boost long-term group revenue, is expected to become law by September.

Of Italy’s seven terrestrial nationwide TV channels, Berlusconi holds sway over six — Mediaset’s three and the three run by RAI, which is overseen by a board largely appointed by Berlusconi supporters.

(Sheri Jennings in Rome contributed to this report.)

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